Boko Haram: the Next Global Jihadists?

Yet another attack was perpetrated on Sunday against a church in the Nigerian city of Jos by the group Boko Haram. In November last year, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee had issued a report stating that this Muslim sect, which has been carrying out increasingly violent attacks in Nigeria in the past months, was “an emerging threat to the U.S. homeland.” The organisation, whose name translates as “Western education is a sin” in the Haoussa language, is a Salafist jihadist group based in northeast Nigeria. Seeking to establish Sharia law across a country divided between a mainly Muslim north and mostly Christian south, it has killed 935 people since 2009 through bombings and assassinations of Christians living in the north of the country. Last August, it moved up a notch when it managed to attract worldwide attention by attacking U.N. headquarters in Abuja, killing 25 people and injuring more than 80. But has Boko Haram really become the “next battalion” of global jihadists?

Whether this terrorist organisation is linked to al-Qaeda or not is a question which has been on many experts’ minds during the past months. A UN Security Council Report stated that Boko Haram members had been arrested last year as they were travelling to Mali, in possession of documents on the manufacturing of explosives and details of AQIM members. More generally, some officials claim that the similarity in the frequency and ingenuity of Boko Haram’s and al-Qaeda’s methods suggests there is some form of cooperation with international terrorist networks: Algeria’s branch of al-Qaeda or Somalia’s Shebabs, even though the latter hypothesis is highly questionable. In addition to these assumptions, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, determined to stand as a front-line ally in the West’s war on terror, has kept such suspicions going by referring to the group as a “terrorist organisation with global ambitions.”

But in spite of Boko Haram’s attempts to recall, notably in their YouTube videos, the style of al-Qaeda, at the end of the day it remains firmly focused on domestic Nigerian grievances. Joe Brock explains that “[the group’s] anger is directed not at America or Europe but at Nigeria’s elites: at their perceived arrogance, their failure to deliver services, and the brutality of their security forces.” Even though Boko Haram officially covets the general implementation of Sharia law in Nigeria, and even if, as the late Samuel P. Huntington would argue, religious and cultural differences are enough to trigger a conflict, a careful analysis of the group demonstrates that its resentment already existed decades ago and does not have everything to do with a broader Islamist programme.

There is, indeed, a cocktail of explanations for the ongoing violence in Nigeria. First of all, in spite of extensive natural resources, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal countries in the world. Although it cannot be denied that there is a radicalisation of Islam in the region, the perception that there exists a differential treatment between the poor northern states and the more developed south has been a crucial factor in the recent upsurge of violence. In the north, the feeling of injustice is rampant. Oil, produced in the Niger delta in the south, is the country’s primary financial resource and yields approximately 60 billion dollars each year (2010). However, the federal system which characterises Nigeria has led to a highly unequal distribution of these revenues: while 13% goes to the oil-producing states, the rest depends on the leanings of the government (who, in addition, takes a mighty piece out of the lion’s share). The south has always been favoured, notably in the hope of easing activists in the Niger delta and of preventing oil from getting out of the country. The north, on the other hand, has been deprived of its rightful share, leading to a feeling of alienation from the government. Today, three quarters of northerners live on less than 200 dollars a year. Furthermore, the Nigerian tradition of alternating between a southern Christian president and northern Muslim one, was ended when Goodluck Jonathan succeeded Olesegun Obasanjo, who died before the end of his mandate. Northerners have found the appointment of Jonathan, a Christian from the south, very hard to swallow.

It is difficult to assess how to best tackle the issue. Boko Haram is said to have become a “franchise that anyone can buy into” and needs to be looked at from several perspectives. Although there is an urgent need to put an end to the massacres that Nigeria is witnessing and to the threat of civil war, it would be a mistake to solely deal with the Muslim sect as a security issue. In 2009, the killing of Mohamed Yusuf showed that the death of a terrorist group’s leader was insufficient to annihilate it. More generally, the harshness of the response, which has been essentially military, is said to have fuelled the violence. The need for economic readjustment, on the other hand, is urgent. A bit of governance reform and human development wouldn’t be a bad idea either. But as economic development expert Jeffrey Sachs asserted in a New York Times article, “at 155 million people and rising, Nigeria is the world’s eighth most-populous country and one of the hardest to govern…Very few [countries] come close to Nigeria’s scale and complexity of challenges.”

While Americans may not have so much to worry about regarding their homeland security, Mr Jonathan, on the other hand, has serious reasons to be disquieted given the gargantuan task ahead of him.

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